Regime change without gunfire.

Before I was licensed to practice law, I was licensed to teach history. Like everyone else in this country, I have been watching the attention being given to the ritual unfolding in Washington, D.C. A lot of attention is being given to various details of the event. Underlying it all, however, is a tradition that I haven’t seen anybody say anything about; and this tradition is something that we should give ourselves much more credit for than we do.

The tradition I’m talking about is that every four years, or at the least every eight, we have a peaceful regime change in Washington. It’s been going on for over 230 years. The old president steps down and a new guy takes over, without troops having to be called in, without an assassination, without brown shirts taking over the TV and radio stations, without a civil war. I believe if a study were to be done of the subject, going back say three hundred years, and covering the entire globe, it would be found that in the vast majority of places during the vast majority of the time, regimes don’t change without somebody getting killed or something being blown up.

So lets all enjoy the party, and let’s all be very proud. Notwithstanding all the imperfections, nobody else and nowhere else has anybody come this close to getting it right.

Sorry, my web pages were down for a while today …

Godaddy is the server that hosts my web pages. I don’t know what their problem was, but for several hours today all my web pages were down and not accessible. Whatever the problem was, it’s fixed now and everything is back up.

If you were tying to view one of my web pages and could not, it wasn’t something wrong with your computer. It was the company that hosts my sites. My apologies for the inconvenience.

The thing I noticed that sort of surprises me is how much I missed the pages myself. They contain all sorts of charts, tables and reference materials that I use regularly. One of the reasons I have for posting all the material that I have up on my various pages is so that I can find it myself when I need it.

Restless nights

Friday night this past weekend and again on Saturday night, between 12:30 am and about 3:30 am, I was awakened by calls from individuals who had been arrested for DWI and who were in the custody of police. Before being required to take a breath, blood or urine test, a suspect has a right to speak with a lawyer by telephone. In both cases, the arrested person had called someone else who looked up my DWI web site and then passed my cell number back to the person under arrest.

Often when I receive these calls I find that the person on the other end of the phone is seriously considering refusing to take the test that is being offered. This is a serious mistake, since a test refusal is a separate crime in itself. Besides being a crime, the test refusal carries with it a one year revocation of one’s driving license. So far I have always recommended that the person take the test. It is hard for me to imagine a situation when I would not recommend that.

When I receive one of these calls, I try to find out as much information about the arrest as I can. Sometimes this can involve staying on the phone with the “suspect” for as long as half an hour or so. The result is that often I know things about what went on that the police report may not include and that the potential client may not remember.

Usually after receiving one of these calls I can’t sleep for about an hour, maybe longer. I’ll admit that having this two nights in a row was a tad hard on me. If this seems a little disjointed, that’s probably why.

Excused!

Friday morning – yesterday – I was instructed to report to the jury room at the Hennepin County Government Center for jury duty. After listening to a little talk about how things worked, twenty of us were run through security and led up to judge McGunnigle’s courtroom. As soon as I walked in I knew I would not be there very long. At the tables in the front of the courtroom sat two lawyers I knew, Rolph Sponheim for the prosecution and Marsh Halberg for the defense. These were both people I know, particularly Mr. Sponheim. Judge McGunnigle explained that the Defendant had been charged with a DWI. He didn’t say whether it was a misdemeanor, gross misdemeanor or felony. I could tell that it was no misdemeanor, however, since they were obviously looking to set up a jury of twelve, and with a misdemeanor you only get a jury of six.

I was seated as Juror No. 3. The judge started asking questions to the prospective jurors as a group. One question was whether any of us had an experience which would influence our ability to be objective in this type of case – driving while intoxicated. Several hands went up, including mine. One person was employed in the “beverage industry.” One person has a brother who had been arrested for DWI. Another had relatives who were injured in an accident by a drunk driver. I disclosed that I had defended hundreds of this type of case, and it would be hard to say that this would not influence my decision.

The judge went into a little lecture about how experiences of this sort should be set aside and compartmentalized, and he asked if we could do that. All of those who had raised our hands, including me, said that we thought we could. One of the next questions was whether we knew any of the witnesses, whose names were read off for us, and did we know the Defendant or any of the lawyers. Again, I raised my hand. The judge asked me to explain. I said that I knew Mr. Halberg, not well but I did know him. Besides that, the younger lawyer he had brought along to assist him looked familiar, I had surely seen him around, although I did not know him by name. When it came to Mr. Sponheim, I said I thought I knew him well. I had innumerable cases in which he had been the prosecutor. Then Judge McGunnigle asked if knowing these people would keep me from being able to make a decision based only on the evidence which was to be presented. I said that I believed I have a working relationship with Mr. Sponheim, and that I thought that should disqualify me.

At this point the judge called the lawyers up to the bench for a little conference. A moment later I was excused from that case, but I was to report back to the jury room. Back at the jury room the clerk there said that since I had been on call all week, that I would be excused entirely from any further jury duty. My duty was completed. Must say I was a bit surprised but also relieved. I had another feeling, however, which surprised me. During the short time that I had been up in the courtroom, I had started getting interested in the case. I think I would have enjoyed being on that jury. I would have enjoyed watching those lawyers do their stuff, and I would have liked to see how it all came out.

The thought of going downtown to watch the trial just to see what happens next has occurred to me. They are open to the public, and a trial like that ought to take a couple of days at the least. I already feel behind in my work as a result of the distraction from this episode, however, and I know I don’t really have the time to go watch that trial. I should just count myself lucky to have this experience behind me.

I’ll be in the office Monday morning – no jury duty so far.

Tomorrow, Monday December 29, 2008, is supposed to be the first day of my jury duty with Hennepin County. I just checked with the phone line, and they will not be needing me – at least not tomorrow morning. So for those of you who have had an appointment with me in the morning, I’ll be planning on being there.

The next time I have to check to see if they want me will be 12:15 pm tomorrow afternoon. I am supposed to call in and see if they need me for Monday afternoon. This annoying process will continue for the next two weeks or so. This has meant that I have had to be careful to not be scheduling any court appearances for any of my own cases with my own clients over the next two weeks. Over the past three months or so, I have been making an effort to schedule hearings on all of my cases before Christmas, so that I would have an open schedule now. This made for a dramatically busy December. With that rush over, it seems a bit quiet now; except that I am on call to run downtown and report as a juror to hear a trial.

I’ll be reporting more as this unfolds.

"Enhanced"

The electronic sign over I-394 just a half mile here from my office says “Enhanced DWI Enforcement Thru Jan 1.” I don’t think they’re kidding.

“Enhanced” according to the old hard-bound dictionary on my desk means “to make greater” or to raise, intensify or heighten. It seems to be a term that is used a lot in connection with DWI. For example, if you have a second offense within ten years, that second offense is “enhanced” because of the first. Please remember that taxi cabs are really cheap compared to the cost of being arrested.

As I think I have mentioned earlier, I am noticing that the fact that one is considering or working on filing a bankruptcy seems to enhance to possibility of either being arrested for DWI or being injured in a serious accident. If you should happen to have bankruptcy on your mind, please keep a proper perspective. Focus on what you are doing, when you are doing it. It’s only money. You have more reason now than ever to properly care for yourself – including making sure that whatever you consume is in moderation.

The Case for Santa Claus

Twas the day before Christmas, and my phone has finally quit the constant ringing. Yesterday was another story. Even that close to the holiday, there were lots of interruptions. To all who may be reading this, I wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy Hanukkah. I am going to make an effort for at least the next 48 hours to enjoy these holidays. It’s not that easy after all the sad stories I have been hearing. It is nonetheless my intent to do so.

I think that I still have somewhere within me a little bit of the wonder that was there when I was a small child surrounded by all the holiday hoopla and regalia, expecting a visit from Santa Claus. It’s not that I still believe in Santa Claus; but except for the scene in Miracle on 34th Street, he’s never been accorded his right to a trial by jury. Even in that movie if I recall correctly, the judge dismissed the charges without letting the jury make a decision. It seems to me that Santa Claus should be accorded the presumption of existence until proven to not exist beyond a reasonable doubt. I don’t really believe, but I have to admit that he has not ever been proven to not exist beyond a reasonable doubt. That’s a tough standard, and it has not been met. In fact, any student of logic will tell you that it is impossible to prove a negative. Thus it is a safe bet that Santa’s nonexistence can never and will never be proven – at least not with evidence that’s admissible in court.

I just checked the NORAD web site, where there is a special page for tracking Santa. In fact at the moment I am writing this NORAD says they have Santa on radar over Dhaka, Bangladesh. Looks real to me, or at least I can’t prove it’s not.

Summoned for jury duty

I have received a summons to show up for jury duty on December 29th — downtown at the Hennepin County Government Center. The people who run the program tell me that I can arrange to check in by telephone to see if they need me. This apparently, however, can only be done after I at least show up in person on the first day.

Not long ago I commented to one of the court clerks that I supposed that the week of New Years Eve and New Years Day would be a slow week for jury trials. She laughed at me and said the opposite was the case. Apparently that week is loaded up with jury trials by people who didn’t want to have the trial Christmas week.

When I first received the summons I called in and got a hold of one of the supervisors. I had lots of excuses, not the least of which was that I have served as a referee in the Hennepin County settlement and arbitration programs. I have worn a black robe, sat at the big desk in front of the courtroom and have been called “your honor.” “So what”‘ was the response. They have required retired district court judges to serve. There is an exception for judges who are actually on duty as judges, but that of course would not apply to me.

I anticipate having more to say on this topic as the situation unfolds.

Why you don’t want to get a second Minnesota DWI

It’s dark and it’s cold in Minnesota and the holidays are upon us. This means my phone is about to ring, and on the other end of the line will be someone who just got arrested for the second time in ten years for driving while impaired (DWI).

The consequences of a second alcohol related driving offense are quite harsh, and it seems to me that they come as quite a surprise to many. The punishments for a first offense are quite light by comparison, particularly if your lawyer did a good job. Sometimes that’s one of the things I worry about when I have gotten a particularly good outcome for a client: that my client won’t realize how serious this could have been, and will therefore be more likely to offend again.

The first offense is usually a misdemeanor punishable by a $1,000 fine or 90 days in jail or both, unless there was some aggravating factor. The most common aggravating factors are having a breath test reading of over .20 or having a minor child in the car, and having such a factor could result in even a first offense being a gross misdemeanor. The second offense in ten years, however, is always at least a gross misdemeanor – punishable by $3,000 or a year in jail or both. If you continue to accumulate alcohol-related driving offenses, the fourth one in a ten year period can be a felony – and could involve a trip to Stillwater State Prison. The legalese for this process is “enhancement.” Each offense enhances the next.

Along with increased criminal penalties, the time one goes without being able to drive keeps getting extended for longer periods with each offense. After a third offense drivers are often classified as “inimical to public safety,” which is like becoming a second class citizen who will not be allowed to drive for several years if ever again.

You’d think the foregoing would be enough, but it’s not necessarily the worst of it. For many the most embarrassing thing for a second time offender is that he or she is issued special license plates — called “whisky plates” because they often start with the letters “WX.” It usually seems that lots of fellow employees in the employee parking lot know what that means, particularly if the person who has the special plates happens to be the boss.

Perhaps the worst thing is what happens to the car the offender is driving when it’s a second offense with one of those aggravating factors – such as testing above .20. In that event the police seize that vehicle. Forever in most cases. There are some limited circumstances under which the car can be recovered by the owner; but most of the time that car is gone and stays gone. If the car belongs to the driver’s wife, mother, husband, girlfriend, aunt, uncle or employer, the state does not care. Unless the owner can show that the driver did not have permission to drive that vehicle, it usually makes no difference that it belongs to someone else.

For those who wish to try to get the vehicle back, the seizure has to be challenged with a petition filed in district court; and the time allowed for doing so is very short. Winning such challenges is not easy.

In other words, if you happen to already have a first DWI offense on your record, you absolutely must not let that happen again.

National Guard and Reservist Debt Relief Act

One of the things Congress did before going home was pass the “National Guard and Reservists Debt Relief Act.” I haven’t heard if the President has signed it, but it seems to me he must. This law would exempt certain members of the armed forces from the means test if a bankruptcy petition is filed within 540 days after they complete active duty. I would hope that the same rule would apply WHILE they are on active duty.

I’m glad to see this law being passed. However, I doubt it has much real effect because almost all of these folks would qualify for bankruptcy anyway.